Robert Lewandowski has scored 420 goals for club and country, some much bigger than others. But perhaps the most important act of his 14-season professional career came not in a packed stadium before a global TV audience but in a quiet hospital room in his native Poland for an audience of one.
At first it seemed no different from many of the dozens of other hospital visits he has made: a quick hello, a couple of autographs and a few well-practiced platitudes even Lewandowski admits can seem more rehearsed than sincere.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and, ‘Don’t give up,’” Lewandowski recalled across a patio table at the Four Seasons hotel during a visit to Southern California earlier this summer. When he stepped out of the room an hour later, doctors told the Bayern Munich striker the boy had already given up; he was tired of fighting and resigned to his fate.
But at least he got to meet his favorite soccer player.
The memories of that conversation were still haunting Lewandowski when the hospital called again several weeks later.
“They say to me they did new tests on him and now they see positive things in these tests,” he said. “One month after he wanted to die he wanted to fight with everything he had.”
How the boy survived, the doctors can’t explain. Nor can Lewandowski, who says whatever part he may have played in saving a life was way more fulfilling than scoring a goal. The episode put soccer in perspective; it is just a game, true, but it gives its star players a platform that Lewandowski, a devout Catholic, knows it would be a sin to waste.
“It’s difficult to explain, what I felt,” he said. “You feel that you did something good. I didn’t know what exactly. But if you see the results, that was really an amazing feeling.”
Lewandowski is familiar with amazing feelings. Less than three weeks past his 31st birthday and beginning his sixth season with Bayern Munich, he is at the top of his game as well as his fame and fortune.
Bayern is unbeaten three games into the new season with Lewandowski accounting for six of the team’s 11 goals. It’s the fastest start to a season of his career and one he celebrated by signing a two-year contract extension — worth a reported $22 million a season — that will keep him with the club through 2023.
His 208 Bundesliga goals with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern are the most ever for a foreign-born player and in nine full seasons in Germany, he has won seven Bundesliga titles, including the last five in a row with Bayern. He’s also won four of the last six league scoring titles.
But he’s far from satisfied with those numbers.
“I want to be better,” he said. “I want to score more goals, win more titles.”
Internationally, no Polish player has appeared in more games (107) or scored more goals (57) than Lewandowski; and only five active players worldwide — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez and David Villa — have more career goals.
Lewandowski is younger and has played fewer games than all five.
At 31, he concedes he may have lost a step or three, but he said he makes up for that with the experience he’s picked up over the years. And his hunger, he added, is unsatiated.
“If I wake up and I say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the training ground,’ that means that I have to finish my career,” he said. “I’m lucky because I’m having fun, love the sport and want to play hard.”
Lewandowski’s desire to do charity work started long before the goals and the paychecks started to stack up. For years he and his wife Anna, a world-class karate athlete, have been raising and donating piles of cash to organizations including the Children’s Memorial Health Institute in his hometown of Warsaw and the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, Poland’s largest nongovernmental nonprofit charity.
They don’t do it because they’re wealthy celebrities, Lewandowski said. They do it because they must.
“If you don’t feel it, you cannot do this,” he said.
And Lewandowski certainly feels it. Especially after seeing the difference a short visit to a child who had lost all hope can make.
“I didn’t know that something like meeting with these children, speaking with this child, would be positive for him,” he said. “For me it was nothing special, but for him that was something amazing.
“Sometimes the small things are huge. You can help with money but sometimes you have to be there.”